Wednesday, April 27, 2016

“Only Healing” Easter 2 (April 10, 2016, MCC Windsor)



Acts 3:1-10
Peter and John went to the Temple one afternoon to take part in the three o’clock prayer service. As they approached the Temple, someone lame from birth was being carried in. Each day he was put beside the Temple gate, the one called the Beautiful Gate, so he could beg from the people going into the Temple. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for some money.
Peter and John looked at him intently, and Peter said, “Look at us!” The lame person looked at them eagerly, expecting some money. But Peter said, “I don’t have any silver or gold for you. But I’ll give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, get up and walk!”
Then Peter took the person by the right hand and helped him up. And as he did, the man’s feet and ankles were instantly healed and strengthened. He jumped up, stood on his feet, and began to walk! Then, walking, leaping, and praising God, he went into the Temple with them.
All the people saw him walking and heard him praising God. When they realized he was the lame beggar they had seen so often at the Beautiful Gate, they were absolutely astounded!

Mark 6:53-56
After Jesus and the disciples had crossed the lake, they landed at Gennesaret. They brought the boat to shore and climbed out. The people recognized Jesus at once, and they ran throughout the whole area, carrying sick people on mats to wherever they heard he was.  Wherever he went—in villages, cities, or the countryside—they brought the sick out to the marketplaces. They begged him to let the sick touch at least the fringe of his robe, and all who touched him were healed.

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Will you pray with and for me? Holy One, you are the healer of our spirits. Be with us as we open our hearts to your presence with us, and give us grace in this time to truly take in your love and wisdom. In all your names, amen.

Healing has always been important in religions, in cults, in spirituality. It’s not difficult, I think, to understand why. When a person is ill, whether in the body, mind, or spirit, all they want is to get well, whatever that takes. And sometimes it is hard to know why you are ill—this was especially true in the distant past, before humans understood about germs and viruses and antibiotics. A person would just suddenly get sick, and sometimes would get better, and sometimes wouldn’t for a long time, and sometimes would be OK afterwards and sometimes would suffer permanent damage—and sometimes wouldn’t survive at all. Injuries too—sometimes people could be sewn back together and would be OK and other times not. They didn’t know about keeping wounds clean and infections and internal bleeding. Obviously they could observe that people whose wounds were kept clear healed better, but that wasn’t always possible—and sometimes they died anyway, if they had internal injuries, or if the wounds were worse than they appeared. Even into relatively modern times, something as minor—to us—as a cold could be deadly. When we read Jane Austen novels---or at least when I do!—and we read of someone spraining an ankle and having to stay as a guest where they had just been passing by, we might think it contrived. But the reality is that in those days of no springs in the carriages—which meant a lot of bouncing around—an injured rider was bound to injure herself again. And of course she couldn’t ride horseback—you need feet and ankles for that even sidesaddle. Walking was naturally not an option. And so, in one of her books, a character does stay on a visit of several days with friends she had not even been planning to see, when she twists her ankle and cannot get home; and then catches a cold which threatens to turn into pneumonia—and this in the days before penicillin, remember.

So in Jesus’ day, while medicine could do some things, and people had more medical knowledge than we often give them credit for, knowledge that was mostly lost in Europe during the Middle Ages, health was still crucial. Someone who became ill, or had a chronic illness, or a disability, was an economic liability to his or her family. It is a cruel truth. A person who had mobility limitations—this in the days before wheelchairs or artificial limbs or elevators or ramps; or who was visually or hearing impaired; or simply had cancer—this person could not contribute much to the household income, could not work in the field very well or care for the children or weave or cook or care for the flocks and herds. They had become a liability. Given the economic realities of the time, many of them, as this person at the Beautiful Gate did, became beggars in order to contribute something.  And yet, of course, they had families who loved them—this was their daughter, their brother, their cousin, their nephew. And so of course they wanted healing for them. It wasn’t an economic decision—it was a yearning of the heart.

And so Jesus healed; and so did Peter and John, following his example.

So here’s a question I’ve always had—and it popped up again when I started thinking about this reading for today. Why didn’t Jesus heal all the people? There were a lot of people coming to him for help, but we don’t hear that he healed all of them. And I’m sure Peter and John passed other beggars in the gate—it’s a natural place for beggars to gather, anywhere people have to slow down, where traffic slows down and people gather. You see it today, at the on-ramps and off-ramps to freeways and the big intersections in the city. There were many people, but not all were healed. Why?

For a long time, I thought it was because not all of them were worthy—the ones who weren’t healed didn’t have enough faith, or hadn’t asked, or were too afraid. But the more I thought about it, the less I liked that answer. Why would Jesus pick and choose? If all those people came to him for healing, why would he heal only some of them?

A couple of things changed my thinking. One was understanding the difference between curing and healing. Curing something means it is gone, no more, bye-bye. A person can be cured of very few things—a minor cold or a scratch, maybe. But anything else—well, it leaves a mark on you and is with you always, in some form or another, and may always affect your life, sometimes in major ways. A person cannot be healed from diabetes, for example; nor cystic fibrosis or substance abuse or cancer. Even a broken bone leaves the bone weakened, and something like cancer leaves a person's body permanently weakened and scarred. The effects of these illnesses are always with them, and they are always in recovery from them—they are healing or healed, but never cured.

So Jesus—and John and Peter--carried out healing, not cures. The bodily manifestations of the individual’s illness--the skin disease or the mental illness or the lameness-- may have been gone, as with the person at the gate to the Temple, who was able to dance when he could barely stand before. But the effects of the illness are still there, if not physically then emotionally and spiritually. Many cancer survivors will tell you they gained an attitude during treatment they didn't have before. It's partly a new sense of what's important--and it's not usually what was important before their diagnosis--and partly a new sense of skepticism about what "authorities" say, since for most of us, we were eating well or at least reasonably,  we had no real risk factors, and yet there we were in a cancer clinic wait room...

Not cured, but healed.

Something else I noticed. These were mostly folks who were already following Jesus. Certainly that's true in Mark's Gospel. The person at the gate in Acts was not prevented from entering the Temple--he couldn't serve, if he had been asked, since those serving in the temple had to be clear of any bodily defect. They were not healed so they could worship; and they didn't worship as the price of their healing; they worshiped and they were healed. The only connection the two have to each other is the the healing was celebrated in worship. There's nothing in either reading to suggest that the ones who were healed didn't already worship.

The healing showed the power of God through Christ to restore people to a place in community. Without the healing, they were marginalized, less than; not actually cast out, like lepers and murders and so on were; but they were on the very edges of community. Whatever happened--and remember, the Bible is a book of why, not how--the individuals who needed healing received it, and provided a sign of God's coming realm. They had reason to celebrate! Not only were they healed--in and of itself a great thing--but they had a foretaste of the perfect realm of God's love.

So what does this all mean to us? We are unlikely to meet Jesus on the front steps of church, although I would guess that all of us have something we would like to be healed from. We can meet Jesus in two places--our own hearts, and in each other.

Take time this week to be with Jesus--in prayer, in conversation as you move through your day, in quiet times of meditation--what ever works best for you. I am willing to bet that when you do that, you will see Jesus more often in others as well--the driver ahead of you in the Timmy's drive through who paid for your coffee; the co-worker who normally is so hard to deal with, but today confesses her concern for her mother's health; the man who holds up traffic so that a duck and her ducklings can cross the road. And you will find him within your self, too--those fruits of the spirit: kindness, patience, strength, love, and wisdom.

Go, my friends, to be healed, and to heal. In all God's names. Amen.

"Speaking Truth" Easter 1 (April 3, 2016, Holy Covenant MCC)



Acts 5:27-40
Then they brought the apostles before the high council, where the high priest confronted them. “We gave you strict orders never again to teach in this one's name!” he said. “Instead, you have filled all Jerusalem with your teaching about him, and you want to make us responsible for his death!” But Peter and the apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead after the authorities killed him by hanging him on a cross. Then God put him in the place of honor at his right hand as Prince and Savior. He did this so the people of Israel would repent of their sins and be forgiven. We are witnesses of these things and so is the Holy Spirit, who is given by God to those who obey him.” When they heard this, the high council was furious and decided to kill them. But one member, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, who was an expert in religious law and respected by all the people, stood up and ordered that the men be sent outside the council chamber for a while. Then he said to his colleagues, “Leaders of Israel, take care what you are planning to do to these men! Some time ago there was that fellow Theudas, who pretended to be someone great. About 400 others joined him, but he was killed, and all his followers went their various ways. The whole movement came to nothing. After him, at the time of the census, there was Judas of Galilee. He got people to follow him, but he was killed, too, and all his followers were scattered. “So my advice is, leave these men alone. Let them go. If they are planning and doing these things merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is from God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even find yourselves fighting against God!” The others accepted his advice. They called in the apostles and had them flogged. Then they ordered them never again to speak in the name of Jesus, and they let them go.

John 20:19-31 That Sunday evening the disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Suddenly, Jesus was standing there among them! “Peace be with you,” he said. As he spoke, he showed them the wounds in his hands and his side. They were filled with joy when they saw Jesus!  Again he said, “Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyones sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” One of the twelve disciples, Thomas nicknamed the Twin, was not with the others when Jesus came. They told him, “We have seen Jesus!” But he replied, “I wont believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side.” Eight days later the disciples were together again, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were locked; but suddenly, as before, Jesus was standing among them. “Peace be with you,” he said. Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and look at my hands. Put your hand into the wound in my side. Dont be faithless any longer. Believe!” “My Lord and my God!” Thomas exclaimed. Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” The disciples saw Jesus do many other miraculous signs in addition to the ones recorded in this book. But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Child of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name.

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Will you pray with and for me? Holy One, speak through me, in spite of me; may my words be a window through which the light of your love and truth may shine. In all your many names, amen.

It is good to be here today! I am so very pleased to be here with you this morning, and I bring you greetings from your sister churches MCC Windsor and MCC Detroit.

So here we are with the traditional Sunday-after-Easter-reading--Thomas, so-called Doubting Thomas. I've always had a respect for Thomas, though--he didn't go along with the crowd of the rest of the disciples, he didn't assume that if the rest of them had seen something, then it must have really happened. No, he wanted to know for himself, He wasn't going to take anyone's word for it. And so Thomas makes his statement of bravado about fingers and hands and wounds...a bit graphic if you ask me, but clear and definite--that would indeed be proof! He reminds me of my friends who have a hard time with spirituality and mystical experiences such as prayer and labyrinths. He wants to know if such things happen, how do they happen? How is it possible for them to happen? what is the process by which, or through which, they happen? If someone says they felt a sense of peace at the center  of the labyrinth, for example, my friends want to explain it as a result of the exhilaration of walking; or the crowd effect--everyone else says they feel peaceful, so the power of suggestion makes them feel peaceful. And so on.

Thomas refuses to be drawn into the herd instinct. He stands apart and insists on his own experience.  Which is, that he hasn't seen any risen Jesus, and until he is certain it's really Jesus and not a ghost or apparition or ghost or mirage, he's not going to assume it is Jesus, who cares what Peter and John and Andrew and all the others say.

It takes a lot of courage to stand up like that, to be so strong of character that you will not give in to what the group thinks, even your group of friends and family. Even when it is something you want very much to believe, as Thomas wanted to believe that Jesus was not dead.

It takes the same kind of courage for Gamaliel, the member of the Jewish Council who stood up for the apostles, to speak in their defence. But he has a very good point. If the apostles are not sent by God, if their message is not, in fact, of divine origin, then it will fall apart and vanish, whether the council supports it or not. If it is sent by God, then there is nothing they can do to  prevent it, and if they try, then they will be working against God. It is maybe an uncomfortable truth, when the rest of the council wants to toss the apostles out on their ears, but he insists on it.

Both of them, both Gamaliel and Thomas, are aware of a truth that it is easy to put aside or forget. We do not know the whole story. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way. He said, "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase."

We can't see the end of the road from where we are; all we can do is step out in faith, knowing we are making the best decision we can for the moment we are in. Thomas was honest in his doubt; in his faith, he spoke his doubt. "I need to know that this is for sure Jesus," he says, in effect. "I want to know those are really his wounds. I don't want to be fooled by my hope and my longing to see Jesus again."

Jesus honoured that doubt and called his bluff--"Go ahead, touch my wounds." And that was enough for Thomas. Actually it was more than enough. Thomas became, according to tradition, one of the great evangelists, carrying the gospel to India, so that when Europeans arrived in the 1500s, they were greeted by the Mar Thoma Christians. "Mar" is Aramaic for "lord" or "lady"--so Lord Thomas, the one who had brought the word of God to India. Incidentally, that's also the origin of the names "Martha" and "Mark"....just saying....

That insistence on doubt by Thomas led to so much more than his doubts being laid to rest. So often, what seems minor or a small action to us has major effects for others.

I'm sure we've seen the YouTube videos of one person helping another, who helps another, who helps another--until it circles around and the first people is helped. Or--my personal favourite--the one from Singapore, in which the man performs small acts of kindness, that very few others would even notice. He moves a dying plant over to catch the water running out out of a downspout; helps the older woman get her food cart up over the curb; gives the beggar woman and her daughter the last of his cash; shares his meal with a stray dog. And in the end, he has a new pet, a lovely tree blooms, a child is going to school. No great reward, no special recognition--but the reward of friendship and a life well-lived. He doesn't do those things for any reward at all.

Facebook is a very interesting place, as those of you on it know. One of the rewards of Facebook that I appreciate is reconnecting with friends from high school. I know that for some of us high school was not really a wonderful time or place. The first year or so were not for me, either. But then things settled into place, and I found my tribe. I wasn't out at the time--partly because I was so confused by my feelings, being bi/pan sexual--but a deeper part of me knew, and the people I was closest to at the time are either part of the LGBTTIQ community today--including two of my ex-boyfriends, go figure--or are firm allies. Shortly after I reconnected with one of the latter, she messaged me and said she had been hoping we would reconnect, as she had always wanted to thank me. And then she told me this story. When we were both in 8th grade, we had been in a horseback riding camp over the summer.  She had felt awkward as she had had little direct experience with horses, unlike most of the rest of us. I had, apparently, helped her with some of those basics instead of teasing her or ignoring her struggles. She had remembered that and wanted to express her gratitude that I had made the camp bearable and even fun instead of a nightmare. The truth is that while I just barely remember the camp and her being a part of it, I don't remember helping her at all. I don't doubt her memory, or that I did something at some point that she found helpful and supportive. That I don't remember it doesn't matter. She remembers it, and it matters very much to her.

I tell the story not to show what a good person I am--if I were doing that, I would no doubt remember helping her and 16 other people in the class, not mention rescuing a whole school of orphans from a flood.

The point is, it is the small, almost unintentional comments, moments, actions that we do that can change lives. I am willing to bet that Gamaliel, the member of the Jewish council, didn't think again about that morning meeting with the followers of that carpenter Joshua, AKA Jesus--they didn't become prominent in his lifetime. And Thomas could not have known, on that early morning, that his doubt would result in a journey to a very different land and culture, to plant the knowledge and love of Christ on the continent of Asia.

That doesn't mean that we should be fearful to speak or act--after all, not speaking or acting may have a result, too! But we should be aware that our actions, our words, will have results we know nothing of at this moment--and none the less, we move forward in faith. Even when we cannot see all of the staircase, we take the first step in faith. My friends, take the first step in faith, confident that although we may not see the whole staircase, the grace and power and love that oversees our lives knows every step. In all the many names of our loving God, amen.

“Because They Were Afraid” Easter Sunday (March 27, 2016), MCC Windsor



Psalm 118:21-27
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
    you have become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
our God has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Holy One has done it this very day;
    let us rejoice today and be glad.
O God, save us!
    Holy One, grant us success!
Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God.
    From the house of the Holy One we bless you.
The Holy One is God,
    and God has made the divine light shine on us.
With branches in hand, join in the festal procession
    up to the horns of the altar.

Mark 16:1-8
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesusbody. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
“Dont be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

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Will you pray with and for me? Risen God, reawaken our love for you. Refresh our hearts with the fire of your love for us. Remind us of your grace-filled presence with us, even when it seems to us you are absent. Give us a spirit of courage to speak your truth, to be bold in your service, to not count the cost when we do your work, to know what we have seen and heard from you, and give us grace and breath to share it. In all your blessed names, amen.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

When we make that Easter declaration to each other, we are in a sense braver than than those women at the tomb. They had seen the empty tomb; they knew where Jesus' dead body had been laid, and it wasn't there anymore. They knew something was happening--they weren't sure what, but something was going on. It was so far outside their experience that they didn't even have words for it. Neither did anyone else. They had seen Lazarus raised, or some of of them had--but in that case Jesus had called Lazarus forth from the tomb. One person raised another. But Jesus had been alone in the tomb--it was a new tomb, Jesus was the first person in it. So who had raised him? Or had someone taken the body? Had some of the disciples moved it to keep it safe? What had happened to Jesus' body? So many questions and too few answers. And they had to be cautious, too--if they asked the wrong question in the wrong place, the results could be disastrous. If the Romans found out the body was gone, they might blame the religious leaders and then the religious leaders would retaliate on the disciples... Or the religious leaders would try to blame the disciples. No, better to keep quiet.

The earliest versions of Mark do in fact end here. The tomb is empty. The angels give the good news--and the women who were witnesses don't say anything to anyone--out of fear of ridicule, one suspects, quite apart from the larger implications I just mentioned. The Luke reading says that the women's story "sounded like nonsense" to the other apostles, so they didn't believe them. Only Peter goes to see what they are talking about, and finds just what they said--an empty tomb. He goes home, still confused.

When I was young, and read or heard a story, or saw a movie or TV show I liked, I tried to imagine myself into the story. I was the daughter or sidekick or friend of the hero or heroine, and part of the story. How would I have acted, what would I have done? How would that have changed the story? Usually, of course, I would have had far more sense than the hapless characters, or even more courage than the brave ones, and would have solved the riddles much more quickly than the heroes and heroines.

But when we read the Bible, it is harder to think that we could be better than these people, that we would not make the mistakes that they do. After all, aren't we all proud of our strengths, like Samson? And faithful to a fault--until we aren't--like Peter? Unlike most book heroes, people in the Bible have plenty of faults, and those faults are their downfall--Joseph and his pride, David and his arrogance, Paul and his absolute adherence to Jewish law.

And then these women, who experienced the unforgettable, but also literally unspeakable--because who would believe them? And even if they did, it would complicate things so much for the authorities and the disciples--probably a better idea to keep it quiet, and talk it out among  themselves.

How often do we keep good news inside, out of fear? Are we afraid to share good news because we don't want to be laughed at or shunned, because it seems too far fetched or strange, or asks people to do things they aren't used to doing? What good news are we holding in, even now, because we don't know how to speak it, or who to tell, or what to do next?

There's all kinds of good news to share--all kinds of prophecy to share--prophecy in the sense of speaking truth to power. Our sisters and brothers in North Carolina in the US are speaking truth to power in the wake of sweeping legislation that prohibits anti-discrimination laws by cities in that state that are broader than the state's laws, and that expressly prohibits protection for transgender women and men by requiring them to use the washroom of the gender indicated on their birth certificate. Their birth certificate can only be changed--again, according to state law--after surgical gender correction--which many people cannot afford or which is medically impossible for them. It is, practically speaking, a farce, as trans men--marked as female on their birth certificate--who have been taking testosterone will appear fully masculine, but must use the women's room according to the this legislation--and the reverse is true for many transwomen. And then there's the logistics--will everyone have to carry a copy of their birth certificate with them at all times? And what about people who fall at variant places on the gender spectrum? I have friends who identify as cisgender women and yet are frequently hassled in women's rooms because they tend to present in a more masculine way.

Well, you can see this one pushes my buttons! But these are truths that need to be spoken.

And there are other calls for truth-telling--about the way we humans treat the natural world, how we treat each other, both our immediate neighbours and those who share the earth with us, how we treat ourselves. I am guessing that every one of us has some truth in our hearts that we are longing to tell--but we are afraid.

The truth the women found at Jesus' tomb was not kept a secret, was it? Mark's account may have ended while it was still whispered about, uncertain--but Matthew, Luke and John were recorded when the truth could be shouted loud and clear--Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!

The same is true of the truths we are keeping in our hearts--we cannot keep them there forever; when the time is right, or even when we think it is not right, it will burst out of us, the truth will be spoken to power, even if our voice shakes, because, my friends, like Martin Luther, we can do no other. We will speak that dreadful truth--and others will join us, and testify that it is their truth too--but even if we are still speaking alone, we are speaking truth, and that is enough.

And so on this lovely, new, open, fresh-start Easter, my friends, know your truth, speak that truth to power, speak it to the Romans, to the disciples, to whoever needs to hear it.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!